Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ask FRB: What's the Most Complex Sports Structure?

Dear FRB:

What is the single most bafflingly convoluted sports system of them all?

This is an easy one. The N.C.A.A. Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision. No other structure, in FRB's opinion, has more unusual elements.

Imagine an intelligent person who avidly follows many sports around the world, but for whatever reason knows nothing about American college sports. Now imagine trying to describe to him how the college football champion is crowned. How many potentially confusing things would you have to explain?

1. The conference. Each is a grouping of 8 to 13 teams from one region of the country. Except that the regions overlap. And some of the conferences have spread so far out of their original regions that people have seriously discussed adding San Diego State to the "Big East."

1a. You also probably want to point out that the Big 10 has 12 teams and the Big 12 has 10.

2. Scheduling. Teams play most of the other teams in their conference, but not all. The teams they don't play rotate from year to year, except certain teams are always on the schedule.

2b. Teams also play several games against teams from outside of their conferences. Bizarrely, they choose and schedule these games themselves, often many years in advance.

2c. A few teams are independents, and therefore schedule all their games themselves.

3. Divisions. Each of the larger conferences is divided, mostly arbitrarily, into two divisions. At the end of the season the winners of each division meet in a conference final.

3b. Only in-conference games count for determining division or conference winners. Nevertheless, conferences might consider performance in non-conference games in breaking ties.

4. Bowls. At the end of the season, there are about 35 of these games, which have no equivalent in any other world sport. Many of these are scheduled automatically "Fourth place in the Big 10 vs. Fifth place in the SEC" for example. Others are scheduled ad hoc each year. All but one of them have no influence on the national champion. 

Wow. FRB contends what we have just covered is the most difficult structure to explain in all of world sport.

And we haven't even mentioned the letters "B.C.S." yet.

If you haven't exhausted your curious friend yet, imagine explaining:

5. The BCS ranking, which includes two entirely subjective polls of various people with sometimes vague connections to college football. It also includes several computer rankings run by independent people who may use their own formulas, but who may not factor in margin of victory. (Though those voting in the polls may consider it.)

6. The process of qualifying for the five BCS bowls. (Six conference champions get in, based on their conference records, but the other four teams get in based on records both in and out of conference.)

6a. The difference between BCS and non-BCS conferences.

6b. The rule that Notre Dame (but not other independents) gets in automatically if it is in the top 8.

6c. The rule that one non-BCS conference champion gets in if it is in the top 12. (You might point out that this rule was put in under pressure from the United States Congress(!).) 

7. The BCS championship game, which matches the top two teams in the BCS rankings. Even if one (or both!) didn't win its conference or even its division.
And finally we've come to the end. The winner of this game is the national champion.





Before the advent of the BCS system in 1998, there were competing bodies determining the national champion. The most prestigious of these is the AP poll of news media members. Though it is not part of the BCS ranking, the AP poll is still the most reputable ranking of teams during the season. And at the end of the season, there is a final AP poll selecting a national champion. In 2004, LSU won the "national championship game," but AP voters selected USC as the national champion.

Just about anyone with a pencil and 10 spare minutes could construct a better, cleaner way of taking 120 football teams and finding a national champion in a five-month season, Sadly, because of entrenched interests, a hidebound bureaucracy, and the money that keeps both going, any changes are likely to be marginal. And, if anything, in the direction of still more complexity.


  1. Do you think we will ever move to four "major" 16 team conferences? B1G, PAC-16, SEC, and ACC?

  2. I think it is better than the other proposed system where Notre Dame was awarded the national title provided they won seven games, regardless of whether or not one of those wins came in a bowl game.

  3. I am in favor of 4 conferences of 13 teams each.
    Teams play each conference team once with the four champions playing off in a "football final 4."

    In addition, 4 more conferences of 13 teams each in "level 2" and 4 more in "level 3." Then we borrow a page from English soccer and have promotion and relegation between the levels each year.

    Two up, two down.